Dance

Richly layered and intricate: Royal Ballet's The Dante Project reviewed

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

The Dante Project

Royal Opera House, in rep until 30 October

Romeo and Juliet

Royal Opera House, in rep until 25 February 2022

Where does the artist end and their work begin? Like 2015’s Woolf Works, Wayne McGregor’s new ballet swirls creator and creation to meditate on a journey of self-realisation. The subject this time is Dante, the Italian poet who redirected the course of western art and literature with The Divine Comedy. Over three acts, each based on a realm of the afterlife, an Everyman navigates sin, penance and salvation. There’s a lot to unpack — as ever, McGregor crafts a rich, layered choreographic language, and Thomas Adès’s accompanying score is just as intricate — but density is The Dante Project’s forte, elevating it to cosmic heights.

The stellar Edward Watson — soon retiring after 20-plus years at the Royal Ballet — is our Dante, putting his spidery limbs to work in a pithy role that takes in furious thrusts and blunt, prickly extensions. Trekking the netherworld, resolve etched on his face, he’s virtuosic as ever. He’s supported by his guide Virgil (Gary Avis) and a sleek ensemble that tackles the knotty choreography with élan.

The first act splits the troupe across different circles of the underworld. Marcelino Sambé shines as a prowling, spiky Ferryman, while Matthew Ball and Francesca Hayward mesmerise in a lurching duet dedicated to illicit lovers, fixed in each other’s slipstream even as it derails them. The phrasing in this act is possibly too demanding at times — there are moments when the group skitters to ping into place in time with the percussion — but their verve supersedes any slip-ups, especially the oom-pah-pah of the final scene, a dozen thieves sprinting through plumes of smoke, cymbals crashing as Satan — a glowing Fumi Kaneko — descends.


After an hour our rocky inferno (styled as a striking chalk illustration by Tacita Dean) gives way to Purgatory, a waiting room where penitents self-flagellate to croaky, monastic intonations. It’s the least intrepid of the ballet’s three parts, though Watson delivers one of his most powerful solos as he recalls his unrequited love for Beatrice (Sarah Lamb), unfurling his limbs with exquisite anguish. Lamb resurfaces in the final act, Paradiso, elegant and fleet as she swirls in the wake of celestial bodies. The ensemble orbits the stage, flickering into action with fizzing contemporary poses.

Dramatic lighting refracts dusky pinks and chromatic purples, while Adès’s melodies soar, adding to the heavenly ambiance. We close on a duet presented so serenely it feels like it’s unfolding in slow motion. Beatrice retreats into the fog, and Dante is left to sojourn alone in the eternal light.

Also headlining this season at the Royal is one of its most polished productions: Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. The 1965 ballet is a feast of plush scenery and theatrical choreography, with a narrative treatment that emphasises the violence of Verona’s warring clans. Swords are drawn, bodies pile high and love perishes without resolution in this riven society.

The innocence of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers comes to the fore with Vadim Muntagirov and Yasmine Naghdi in the title roles. Muntagirov is eager and gallant, every inch the teenage doofus who’d swear his undying love to someone he just met at a party, while Naghdi fizzes with girlish exuberance, buckling her frame the way you do when someone delights you so much you forget how to stand normally. Their romance is more puppyish than red-hot, but it’s full of sweet sorrow all the same: the breathless double–take of their first encounter, their hesitant almost-kiss on her balcony. It’s a joy to bask in their sure-footedness.

With Muntagirov, you can rest easy knowing he’ll always hit his mark; he’s reliably steady even as his dancing intensifies. Naghdi is more whimsical, carving out extra hangtime in her balances, swooping out of them just before the count vanishes. Her floppy ragdoll dance with the Capulet-approved Paris (David Donnelly) is a canny preview of her death scene, at which point it’s Romeo wielding her limp body.

Because of course these violent delights have violent ends. Hastening the tragedy is Thomas Whitehead, who brings a very slappable face as Tybalt in a succinct, aggressive performance. Luca Acri’s Mercutio also makes his mark, hurtling like a firecracker, sparks in his wake. The ballet tasks the ensemble with lavish promenades that take in more than 50 dancers at a time, from swanning aristocrats to courtiers working the corner. The choreography here is eye-grabbing — especially the crisp, syncopated sword fighting — but it’s the lush details that really capture the imagination: the dreamy velvet palette, the quirky string interludes and sumptuous props. It’s an age-old story, but touches like these keep it fresh.

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